by Paco Mejias and Tanzil Shafique
(Review of the US Pavilion at the Venice Bieannale 2016)
The question asked by Alejandro Aravena, curator of the Biennale Architettura 2016, wasn´t easy at all. It wasn´t even clear as Aravena himself seemed to point towards an unknown with an enigmatic “x=?”, framed between issues such inequality, segregation, waste, sustainability, crime, pollution… We wonder what this question mark could exactly mean: Is it referring to an unclear question or to an unclear answer about all these issues? Is it a sign of impotence?
Aravena’s explanations about the goals for such a big commitment are in some way even contradictory to one another. With his title Reporting from the Front, he declared the contemporariness of architecture as a war zone. In this context he claims for our responsibility to do our job properly without blaming “the harshness of constraints” and, at the same time, he asserts that “architects have no moral obligation to society”. So we ask, what is this war about? If architects have no moral obligation to society, then is Aravena not referring to a common front between architects and society fighting against the circumstances or the system, as we could understand through the Biennale title? Is it then just a disciplinary front? Is it a battle between architects? Is it just a war game?
We would agree with Aravena about the undeniable necessity of doing our job properly with no excuses about harsh contextual constraints. In this aspect our responsibility as professionals is not different than any other profession, and architects are obliged to assume the risks of working in hard conditions without affecting the results. The difference between a manual worker and a liberal professional is that the latter has to supply ideas of ways to sort contextual difficulties. If we are not sure about our ability to assure the proper output we could always refuse a commission as an honest recognition of our incapacity, hoping that a more talented or more risk-savvy architect would successfully take care of the problem. One cherished outcome of overcoming of modernity and its idea of the almighty architect is that we now have the freedom to say no.
If this is so, then most of the issues that Aravena proposed to address in the 15th Biennale are quite clearly out of our competences. Political and economic decisions are such major determinants in socioeconomic or environmental problems (as inequality, segregation, migration, crime, waste or pollution), that the illusion of architecture’s ability to significantly change some of these issues is extremely naive. In this case, Aravena’s question mark should be understood as a sign of impotence and the mentioned war becomes just a game.
If we as architect want, and we think we definitely should, to cooperate in fixing some of these problems, then it ought not to be the consequence of a rational decision about architecture’s capacity to bend this adversities, but as an ethical engagement with our natural and social context. From our personal ethical conviction will come the moral obligation with the community’s problems. It is deeply embedded in the character of an architect (and this is what ethic literally means, character)-to work for the improvement of the existing conditions bearing in mind the huge responsibility, in a Sartreian way, of deciding the excellence for the others as if for ourselves. If we are not able to demonstrate that the projected architecture is an improvement of the existing conditions, then the architectural proposal makes no sense and it will not be able to enroll the necessary energy to become real. It is because of this that we find Aravena’s statement so contradictory where he tables such controversial issues while simultaneously invoking moral neutrality.
We know that the Venice Biennale has an uncommon curator system where the general intentions of the main curator are filtered, and sometimes distorted, through the national pavilion curators. This effect is more palpable in cases where the main curator’s message is ambiguous or when the different countries do not share the same concerns. We fail to determine due to which of these, but the United States exhibition in the Venice Biennale proposed a theme, The Architectural Imagination, that seems connected with the main issue of the exhibition in a rather perverse fashion, if at all. This perversion is not the rhetorical type but rather seems one out of neglect for the overarching narrative of the theme. The American curators, Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de León explained this election as an attempt to “emphasize the importance and value of architectural imagination in shaping forms and spaces into exciting future possibilities”.
The first thing that we could say about this statement is to question its novelty. Is it not imagination that is one of the most essential architectural tool for shaping forms and spaces from the very beginning of our discipline? Is it not always serving the higher task of showing us a more exciting future? So why refer to something as generic as imagination?
We could think that the U.S. curators are referring to imagination invoking the importance that imaginative ideas have had in setting solutions for complex problems especially when they need to be solved with a lack of resources. We could also speculate that with imagination the curators are referring to a collective fact that is able to provide energy to a society to overcome difficulties like the traditional role of communal shared dreams (as dreams of liberty or justice). In these two hypotheses we would construct a strong coherence between Aravena’s and Davidson-Ponce de Leon’s concerns, but, even the same concept of imagination is extremely wide and could be understood differently by diverse people or disciplines. We question whether this vagueness of interpretation helps the narration at all.
Talking specifically about architecture we should include some specificity that it would make a difference between architectural imagination and the idea of imagination explained by Descartes that Davidson quoted. Descartes referred to the materiality of imagination (to the physic aspect of it) as opposed to metaphysics, that means being able to form concrete ideas as a reaction to the Middle-Ages obscurantism. Considering that metaphysics is not a usual field in architecture, imagination’s materiality should be understood in our discipline as the concrete ideas dealing with space that is our most widely recognized specificity. This means concreteness about shapes and the way in which they will interact in the chain of human sensations, perceptions and emotions, independently if we are thinking in an specific object (concrete thinking), or if we are excluding the object (abstract thinking).
Yet, it is not a choice but rather the role of the architect has to combine the two aspects, as Todd Gannon explained: the profession and the discipline, the former linked to the real and the second to the abstract. If we agree with that, we can’t agree with Gannon’s interpretation of abstract as virtual (not real), because this is a misunderstanding coming from the discipline of art, which has nothing to do with architecture. Originally the idea of abstraction in art comes from the representation of something that is not real, in opposition to photography; but in architecture, the abstract is opposed to the concrete, because of the shortage of a specific object on which to apply our ideas. In architecture both of them are real, one potentially and the other essentially. Architects always use abstraction as an approach to the real, as architects are the one who make architecture. Hence real things and every action that architects do professionally or disciplinarily focusses in the real effect of the inhabited architecture. In relation to this dilemma, the approach to imagination distilled from the American curators is extremely introverted, and we could say is more artistic in terms of a non-real abstraction. This is far from Aravena’s claim for a social and political commitment to reality and it seems to have a great influence on the exhibited work in the U.S. Pavilion, resulting in a curious social detachment.
The fact that the American curators have chosen Detroit, as one of the cities most affected socially and economically by the financial crisis and the globalization forces all over the States; gave us hope to support again the idea of a matching point of view between Aravena and the American curators. Yet again they seem very far away from each other. Detroit was elected, as Davidson explained, not because of its present harsh situation, but because of its “historical role as a locus of invention” between “the automobile industry, the free-span concrete factory, and the Motown and techno music”. One could have a negative reading of this as we could also argue that the present status of the city is just a consequence of the failures of its own past inventions. The emergency of Detroit’s situation makes this city the worst scenario for new experiments detached from its reality. If our intention is to save the city we should move prudently. An irresponsible experimentation in these conditions will amount to assuming that Detroit is an insensitive dead body.
Cynthia Davidson also explicitly disconnects the exhibition from Aravena’s statement of architect’s social cooperation when she stated that the projects are not asked to solve specific problems. She complains about the “problems solving” attitude as “the mantra of a new social agenda for architecture”, encouraging a kind of artistic speculation and its “alien qualities”. Does that mean that the alien condition derived from a selfish expression, should be the keystone for an architectural social agenda? Could we imagine a statement like this as a social agenda in any other professional field? The curator’s approach is irresponsible and it seems opposed to the realistic concerns of the city explained by Maurice Cox, the architect who directs the City of Detroit´s Planning and Development Department, when he remarked on Detroit’s necessity of solving problems moving forward in “getting stuff done”.
It is curious that, in the middle of all these misunderstandings and oppositional points of view between curators, co-curators, thinkers and politicians, almost unanimously the exhibited architects refused to offer a more critical point of view of the American curator’s statements. Most of the teams have resigned to place themselves aside of the social urgency and have preferred to work from a very unrealistic expression. This attitude increases the historical gap between architects and society. In critical situations as Detroit, the gap becomes a wound.
The first sight of the U.S. pavilion content gives us the general impression of a work extremely based in formal expressionistic devices, ruses and cloaks, or simply put, in funny shapes. Different to other pavilions, in the U.S. pavilion it is difficult for one to get a common message with any kind of social or political content, as it would be expected in a Biennale like this and in a city as Detroit. No-longer-surprising parametric shapes, a forced strangeness or threatening massiveness, are common denominators that can summarize the work exhibited. Something not only unable to capture architect or others imagination but also an exhibition quite upsetting for the thousands of Detroit’s citizen affected by the city drama.
The curators, in cooperation with the city, proposed four different sites. In each one of them, three teams made a proposal-twelve project in total. From west to east the sites are: Mexicantown/Sothwest Detroit, U.S. Post Office in the Waterfront, Dequindre Cut/Eastern Market, and the Packard Plant in the city East. We will go through them all.
In the Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit location, the curators offer an 11 acre triangular site that is part of the west limit of Mexicantown, an immigrant neighborhood that is resisting the cities depopulation and remains a lively streetscape, but a lack of public spaces and buildings fails to give the neighborhood a stronger presence in the city.
The architects Florencia Pita and Jackilin Hah Bloom with the support of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, proposed for the site a project named The New Zocalo. The project is a square materialized in an elevated plinth that tries to attend to the community demand for a public space. The square is flanked by a set of six clusters of buildings that accommodates a multiplicity of programs (theater, recreational center, winter garden, market place, band shell, cultural center…), without an explanation about why, where and how all this emerge from. The aspect of the architecture is a family of strange shapes, pergolas and buildings, generated by the decontextualization of Detroit’s architectural profiles and the historical Woodward’s plan geometry. This is done to a point that shapes became impossible to recognize, forcing an unfamiliarity by animating with colors and textures that seem to come from a peyote trip. The architects explain such maneuver by saying “remaining of familiar Detroit settings and the visual synchronization of color and form”, and in that they pretend to domesticate the intensity of the nearby industry and make a “true place of public exchange”, without an explanation about why these two things are to be connected. The relationship between the project’s operation and its effect is key question to an architecture critic, and this means also the proportionality between them. In this case, the way in which the project’s curious shapes and colors are going to mitigate the impact of 10,000 trucks that daily cross the Detroit river and move into nearby freight lines, is quite unbelievable. Instead of a realistic approach about how to deal with the intense friction between industry and the neighborhood life, the project focuses its narrative on insignificant studies about buildings’ strange colors and forms.
The proposal presented by A(n) Office with the support of the University of Michigan Office of Research and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is titled Promised Land Air. The project is explained as a set of remediation: with the displaced resident for making a new border connection with Canada (The Gordie Howe International Bridge), and with the expected proliferation of trucks in the area and its consequent pollution. For reacting to the situation of this industry’s intensity and its terrible consequences in people’s quotidian life, the architects’ idea is focused on an architecture “capable of remediating air quality”. This idea is naively unpractical (because it multiplies enormously the quantity of air to treat), and more importantly it dismisses the inhabitants of the architecture completely. It is clear that, even if the building is able to contribute to the air purification, to do this without paying attention to the consequences in peoples’ comfort (from the noise to the impossibility of understanding the street as a pedestrian safe place), is irresponsible.
More than this nonsensical machination, the projected new neighborhood is a very uninteresting place. A casual mixture of all kind of programs (housing, industry, culture and government services), is solved just putting things together or one of top of the other, without caring about the street or the public spaces as the necessary glue to connect all of this fabric. The traffic oriented design for the outside contributes to the isolation of the buildings that is evidenced through a common meshed facade in all them. These decisions are highly contradictory with the request by the people from the city for rethinking the space between buildings, increase the walkability throughout the city and incorporating the design of shared streets. The city considers that this is the way to make neighborhoods attractive to people and also the only way to include the increasing percentage of Detroit’s population unable to afford a car in the city life. As we can see through the houses’ plans, the interior spaces don’t compensate this state of isolation with unbelievably conventional and poorly designed spaces.
It sounds like a macabre joke when the architects strike out the word land in the title of their work, because in fact there is no public land to refer to. As a return, they promise to clean air. Thank God! The integration of a purification plan as part of the project, while massive transit of trucks is encouraged through the general strategy of the project, renders the project totally unrealistic with very little scientific rigor.
The last proposal for this site, named Mexicantown: A Liminal Blur, presented by the architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam, starts its narrative in a very curious way. The architects, who define their projects as embodying “a personal search for an architecture of expansive specificity”, explain that they are not going to propose buildings in “such a brief period of time”, and therefore they will make a poem “registering the magic realities of Mexicantown” . The central piece of their exhibition is a model which they describe as a “translational device, giving visible form to the nonobvious”, and we would add that too in a nonobvious way to be interpreted. A system of plastic slabs with a kind of sculpture in the center could be anything that you can imagine, in consonance with the architects idea of a “poem that invites speculation yet remains irreducible to a single interpretation”. The sections and plans displayed for the project share the same spirit: graphic collages where the numbers indicating the parts of a multifunctional and massive program have been thrown with no apparent logic or connection. Again the program is just a juxtaposition of everything known (cultural leisure and institutions), and some unknown uses (as place to get lost, grotto or cabinet of curiosities). Whatever a viewer could see in these drawings is due to basically the spectator’s ability for speculation. My personal speculation was that the project information is an artistic abstraction (just as we explained, deliberately disconnected from reality) and could be whatever you want, with resemblance to projects of the 1960’s such as the Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon or Webb’s Sin Palace, of course without the architectural content and intensity of those projects. There is only one thing worse than an architect wanting to be an artist, which is an architect who pretends to be a poet. Scogin and Elam pretended to be both.
The second elected place, the U.S. Post Office, is a 27 acre site in the waterfront of Detroit city that includes a huge post office complex consists of a massive five stories processing and distribution center and a 10 stories administrative tower. These buildings block any possible relationship between the Corktown neighborhood and the void in the riverfront.
Revolving Detroit is the name of the proposal presented for this site by Preston Scott Cohen with the additional support of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The project reacts to the massive presence of the post office and its 10 stories tower, by attaching it to another massive building with another ten stories tower that fill up all the open space in the waterfront. For opening the Corktown neighborhood to the river, the project proposes to split the post office into two creating a wedge that connects to the new building. If the volume and urban strategy proposition are strange at the least, the program proposal is further nonsensical: inspired by the Michigan Theater’s decadence (a building from the 1920’s converted brutally in a garage during the 1970’s), Scott Cohen comes up with the idea of the opposite, to design a garage that in some moment could be converted into a cultural space. The metaphor is childish: if the Michigan Theater’s change was a symbol of Detroit’s decadence, this reverse change would be a symbol of its revitalization. Is this really important considering the situation of the city and citizens? Is this even a good idea? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable just to recover the program for the Michigan Theater or convert it in any other cultural program as a symbol of the same thing, especially in a city where walkability is pretended to be encouraged and people have difficulties in owning a car? To consider this alone, is it not cool enough for a Biennale?
The building, an autonomous selfish shape (in coherence with the narrative), has an improper urban answer responding in a similar way to such a different situations as the back of the post office and the waterfront, giving a weak response to the contact with the old building. The project narrative spends too much paragraphs and drawings explaining the shape’s geometry, referring it to the Woodward urban proposal and its rare hexagonal plan and detailing the way in which the hyperboloids that shape the roof connect each other and the ramps “transform from orthogonal to hexagonal to elliptical and back again”, but, does anyone really care about the generation mechanics of the shape with such a weak urban and social strategy? The resultant shape is quite uninteresting and the only value you may find in it is remind us of Marilyn Monroe’s flying skirt.
The proposal presented by Present Future with the additional support of Rice University Shell Center for Sustainability, is called New Corktown. The project demonstrates urban ambition for the regeneration of the Corktown neighborhood and it refuses, in a very convincing way, to focus its intervention in the limited offered plot with the ambition to offer a proposal with enough impact for improving the overall situation. The design strategy is rigorous-shaping a realistic urban renewal that deals with the whole complexity of the problem through a detailed study of the phases that combines, as Maurice Cox was claiming, buildings with landscape as a way to deal with periods of fabric emptiness. Important issues such as affordability, carbon footprint, prefabrication and customization (from the unit to the fabric type and flexible density), are seriously addressed. All this without losing track from the speculative intention that provides new solutions for almost everything: from the way to manage the construction and its materiality, to a new kind of public spaces, proposing an unknown relationship between urban and productive landscape from which it will derive economic and environmental benefits. The project shapes a developmental mix of programs with an explanation of their opportunity that makes a lot of sense and building plans that have been carefully designed. A project with no sexy shapes but with a deep beauty enrooted in their concepts and not in its shapes, and with holistic and creative solutions.
This project is a sparkling moment in the dark mediocrity of the rest of the exhibited material in the U.S. pavilion, and it is a magnificent example of how against the disciplinary elite and its unabashed selfishness, the architects’ creativity is able to deal with social, economic and environmental problems improving people’s present and future lives, or at least offering them the hope that a solution will be possible. This is a real test that only by negotiating with the reality, the architects’ imagination is able to activate people’s imagination for a better future.
The proposal presented by the architects Kelly Bair and Kristy Balliet with the support of the Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture and the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture is named as The Next Port of Call. Unfortunately after the Present Future team’s project, this one brings us back to a beautifully shaped mediocrity. The main goal of the project looks again how to integrate a messy mix of uses that include residence, light industry, leisure, culture and public services; in an attempt to mitigate the way in which the huge building of the post office wall off Corktown neighborhood from the waterfront. The post office building is perforated creating some interesting moments in plan and section, and the space between the remodeled post office and the riverfront is filled with a set of isolated pavilions where the programs are inexplicably mixed. In this case, similarly to other of the presented proposals, different programs are put together through a public space that is disproportionate and uncomfortably empty. The set of pavilion-like buildings is spread all over the waterfront, with half of the public space due to water, and where some recreational uses looks like an excuse for the purpose of being a custom checkpoint for water transit between the United States and Canada (again the industry purposes are prioritized). Only the intervention in the post office offers us a glimpse of how the spaces looks like, because the pavilions sections are represented as solids dismissing the spatial condition, as just sculptural shapes.
The author’s explanation is full of void verbiage, as a new “mode of urban infill based not on actual building dimensions but on one’s perception and occupation of space”, which in effect could be, basically, an explanation for almost whatever. In the project narrative we also find some grandiloquent and enigmatic explanations as the “scale shifts, both smooth and abrupt”, in what appears to refer to the difference in scale between the wing and the cup of the cow-boy-hat-shaped pavilions.
The third proposed site is Dequindre Cut /Eastern Market, a 13 acre L-shaped plot crossed by a pedestrian and cycling path built in a cut that was once a railway trench dug in the 1830’s for linking the Detroit River with the city’s factories. The cut is also on the border between two very different neighborhoods: to the west is the Eastern Market, a commercial area with a successfully market place, and to the east is a severely depopulated neighborhood.
The team lead by Marshall Brown, with the additional support provided by the Illinois Institute of Technology, starts explaining their proposal Dequindre Civic Academy, as the idea of a namesake fictional institution hypothetically opening in 2026. The Dequindre Civic Academy (DCA) appears to be part of the privatized school system built with the hope “to expand the ranks of socially and intellectually equipped citizens”. The embedded message in this hypothesis that, Detroit’s problem is rooted in its people, (basically socially and intellectually unequipped citizens), and in the public management of the education system, unable to socially and intellectually educate them, is immodest and radically wrong. If someone is really guilty about the problems of the city, first are the politicians who have regulated policy and then the architects who design.
The idea that the proposed project has to happen in a kind of citadel isolated from “the shocks of Detroit’s ongoing transformation” is even worse, and it is only understandable from a north-American mentality where, as D. Bollier explained, the communal things are always connected to the idea of tragedy. Keeping in mind that the city is the communal construction per excellence, this way of thinking is extremely detrimental principle for being an architect. In this conceptual messiness, the architect even quotes Lefebvre, probably forgetting that his ideology was extremely supportive of the city as a common political event and it was because of this that his ideas were so inspiring in the city events that took place in May of 1968 in Paris.
The climax of the absurdity in the project narrative is when the architect explains the new institution as the “physical manifestation of America’s motto E Pluribus unum – out of many, one”, a slogan of solidarity, looks like another macabre joke for any of Detroit’s citizen. Brown should remember that Detroit, once America’s richest city, declared bankruptcy in 2013, not only with the federal disparage, but was also forced, a few days before, to pay a multi-million debt to the Bank of America (amongst others), inflated due to interest rate swap agreements. Is this not enough proof of an unsupportive attitude from the ‘American nation’ and an illustration of how this motto has nothing to do with the American set of mind anymore? We should also note that amongst the proposals to restore Detroit, there was one idea of giving the city to Canada who, by the way, provides much more financial federal support (exactly double). This unsupportive attitude happens in all levels, because originally we could understand Detroit’s situation as a case of internal unsupportive attitude, between the city itself and the suburban municipalities. While Detroit downtown progressively sinked, the suburbs grew, one taking the energy and resources from the other, in what was also a racial segregation. E Pluribus unum… are you serious Mr. Brown?
In terms of the architecture, the proposal is again a potpourri of uses (“including a community college, workshops, faculty apartments, a worship center, an observatory, dining halls, a clinic, and a library”); now all of them displayed in a single building of 2.7 million square foot. Brown’s explanation for such bestiality is the idea of the “coordinate unit” developed by the architect John Portman (who, is important to note, was also a real estate developer). Portman devised this concept to justify some of his more massive projects, as the Renaissance Center, a complex of seven interconnected skyscrapers in downtown Detroit. Brown quotes Portman for explaining such an idea, as “a total environment in which practically all of a person’s needs are met… a village where everything is within reach of the pedestrian”. One has to question true novelty of that statement as it is a very old concept of the human race extended worldwide, known as the (reasonable) city. What Brown doesn’t mention is that the Renaissance Center, like his Academy, it was also a social bastion, a place where the elite could be safe from rioters, a landmark in the long history of American architecture serving social segregation.
The proposal presented by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample (MOS), with the additional support of the Columbia and Princeton University Schools of Architecture, is called A Situation Made from Loose and Overlapping Social and Architectural Aggregates. The explanatory text for the proposal is an exhibition of facts that shows how different things are in the contemporary world, in a poetical writing that brings some conceptual confusions. When the architect start asserting that “urbanism has always been mediated by screens and windows” (statement too categorical for being true), these couldn’t be the same screens and windows that are connected to the networks of information, despite the architect narrative to make them the same thing. It sounds kind of cool, but it is conceptually false. When the architects explain that the new urban experience is different now that it was, but “not a new kind of difference but a different kind of sameness”, it again allures to a cool word game but an intellectual nonsense because a different kind of the same is a kind of difference. Beyond these games, other assertions in the text are extremely partial following the uncritical self-confidence, so properly American. When they say that “we attempt to grasp cities by mapping them”, they are ignoring so many explorations of the city based in the experience (from the situationist to tactical urbanism and people-centered urban design, where data are substituted by experience). When they stated that cities “operates as corporations”, the architects are ignoring the increasing interest about informal cities, community initiatives and the historically worldwide spread organization of the Commons, that very clearly are pointing to a bottom-up way of operating the city (by the way, this is a unforgivable oblivion in a Biennale like this one). When they affirm that we don’t need public works projects because they are “too slow and expensive”, and compare them with a soft infrastructure like an app (“small, cheap, fast and private”); it is again a sexy phrase dismissing complexity, which doesn’t deserve a rejoinder.
The architectural proposal is an attempted novel recreation of the mat building idea from the 1960’s, created with a juxtaposition of basic-shape buildings. The strategy looks very efficient in connecting both sides of the cut, in what seems an obvious strategy for fixing some of the site’s problems. The resulting spaces look nice, full of possibilities and shared activities, basically because the mat structure has this quality. The intrinsically difficulties of the typology, that are its urban enclosure and its excessive togetherness remains unsolved. To solve the enclosure requires a strategy that is able to integrate the mat with the rest of the city attending to the specific edge conditions. Although the strategies deployed in MOS’s project are multiple, it is not clear how the mat is going to connect with the city. In some moments this connection is through hybridization (in the west side, which in our opinion the more interesting one), sometimes as dissolution (southwest side), and in some points through unbelievable overlapping (south and northwest). At least the strategy should be different attending to the populated and unpopulated sides of the cut. With regards to mat’s other intrinsic problem that we have referred as togetherness, the position is equally unclear. This idea that Jacobs explain as “if anything is shared among people, much should be shared” and that is, in her words what “drives city people apart”, is quite obvious in the project views. How one can set a sequence between the public and the private with a graduation of spaces is the only way to make the mat typology believable as housing and, which, by the way, is one of the main tasks of a good urban plan. This can’t be addressed just by pasting drawings of active and happy people (mostly whites!) all over the place.
The third and last project presented for this site is made by Zago Architecture with the additional support of Southern California Institute of Architecture, and it is named as A New Federal Project. The project proposes a research about form, more specifically about form’s awkwardness, explained through an awkward narrative. The explanation tries to link form’s novelty with the sociopolitical life of the city with the architect’s insecurity in using new forms that, as a representation of the discourse of autonomy opposes to direct political engagement. With this, the architect tries to connect the proliferation of formal differences with a political agenda of acceptance of cultural difference. This idea is not only weird, as probably it was pretended, but also naïve, because the presence of formal differences in the city has nothing to do with the cultural acceptance of social, racial or political differences. The presence of formal differences is a fact that is usually accepted without being understood (as any other formal difference, as for instance, contemporary art), and as for the normality of the otherness or differences in the other, has to be a conviction deeply embedded in the cultural background of people. One happens instantly and the other takes generations to build.
The project evolves from conceptual weirdness to political inappropriateness when the program is included. The buildings program pretend to be for hosting an intensification of the American political agenda for receiving alien refugees. More than the improper idea of building new ghettos with refugees as urban revitalization strategy, the idea of hosting these alien people in awkward buildings is politically incorrect, just as hosting black people in black buildings is. The art of hosting has a very smart rule which is, the more one is able to pass unnoticed, the more appropriate it is, and it is the better way to make people feel welcomed and integrated.
The set of buildings proposed by Zago include a federal administration one, a building community services, a public hall and some housing blocks, having in common between all of them, of course, their awkwardness. If in the federal administration the exploration has some spatial interest, in the housing blocks the oddness is extremely superficial and the project takes no any advantage of using it for spatial exploration.
The last of the sites proposed for the exhibition is the Packard Plant, a historic industrial building from the beginning of the twenty Century designed by Albert Kahn, which was the first application of reinforced concrete to an automobile plant. The building, which has almost 4 million square feet, occupies a site of 43 acres, and it has became gradually a ruin when Packard went out of business in 1956, further depressed with the decay of all the surroundings neighborhoods. A new ownership is now seeking tenants to occupy a planned partial restoration.
The project presented by Stan Allen Architects, with the support of the Princeton University School of Architecture, is named as Detroit Rock City: An Urban Geology. In the explanation, Allen starts establishing the problem-scape of the project (basically its vastness, remoteness and the fragmentation of peripheral fabric), for concluding that these difficulties would need new urban design strategies. Allen establish four levels of operation (urban, infrastructural, architectural and programmatic), that he said are the four levels of architectural imagination. In each level specific operations have to be accomplished in the Packard Plant restoration. In the urban level the restored plant could be a new urban node able to invigorate the city. In the infrastructural, the project has to be flexible enough to include program diversity adapting it over time. The architectural level is accomplished trying to break the boring continuity of the project through an “array of smaller-scale architectural objects scattered throughout the available surface of the project”. Finally about the program Allen proposes the dissolution of the traditional distinction between city and countryside through the main program of a Vertical Botanical Garden.
Focusing in this last point, the program proposal is weak exactly because all the difficulties that Allen pointed in the site problem-scape: it is too big, too remote and as a unique program entity it will set a clear boundary helpless in the problem of the fabric fragmentation. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand this kind of stubbornness from the architect against accepting the reality that, in this case, is the presence of a private investor interested in developing the plant as a housing complex. Our question is, why not? A housing project could be able to accomplish all the other levels proposed by Allen, included its urban role as node, the dynamism through time, to break the boring continuity and, in a similar way that a garden, even the integration with nature. Is it just for the sake of contradiction?
It is important to point that the Packard Plant building offers us an opportunity for making a more clear statement about how to deal with preservation, an opportunity that looks totally missed. Keeping a massive building like this in such state of deterioration has to be a result of a thoughtful preservation strategy, that could start with basic questions of why, what and how to keep it. Rem Koolhaas’ 2014 Manifesto, Preservation is Overtaking Us, pointed the importance of this issue offering a critical point of view about a commonly extended preservation-with-no-reason attitude. If the thing to preserve about the Packard Plan is its homogeneous forcefulness and repetition then it makes no sense to keep the building distorting these qualities as Allen did. The projected section, the plan (and consequently the resulting spaces), and the new images for the Plant constitutes a completely new building with no trace of Albert Kahn’s work.
The second project proposed for the Packard Plan is presented by the group T+E+A+M (Thom Moran, Ellie Abrons, Adam Fure and Meredith Miller) with the support of the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, under the name of Detroit Reassembly Plan. The project proposes to use the old plant as a resource of building materials and as a research institute for exploring the possibilities of recycling them. The new material would be not only able to offer new technical possibilities but also it would guide architecture to a new formal universe. The preservation justification for what is a practically a total dismantlement of the old building, is that the new Reassembly Plan will keep the sense of material innovation that guided Kahn brothers at the beginning of 20th Century. This is like to say that we would keep the Eiffel Tower if we build another artifact able to celebrate contemporary engineering challenges.
The idea of recycling the material is extremely interesting considering the particular intensity of building removal in Detroit, and the consequent necessity of waste management plans, and the importance of the carbon footprint of the building industry waste. Our question regarding this would be why this can’t be accomplished using the Packard Plant’s architecture properties (its vastness and diaphanous space). On the other hand, the way in which this project is going to help to the specific urban problem of the neighborhood is hard to grasp. The intensity of Detroit’s removal operations and the intense traffic and heavy machinery associate to this kind of installations make us suspect that the problem of the housing decadence in the close neighborhoods would be aggravated.
The project is materialized through a profusion of waste piles and a few Flintstones’ architectures, missing the opportunity of a real formal and technical research about how to take advantage of buildings recycling for benefit people’s interests. From the Roman Coliseum to any of the informal settlement all over the world we could find a lot of examples where the dismantlement of building from the past have been use as a free source of material for necessities of the present. How to apply these ideas in a post-industrial environment was a very interesting opportunity that this project failed to explore fully.
The last of the project exhibited in the U.S. Venice Pavilion is the proposal presented by Greg Lynn FORM, with the support of the University of California Los Angeles school of Architecture, under the title of Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation. Lynn proposed a program that combines a transportation hub, an industrial park, a factory and an university, as a place designed for “both people and robots”, that without further explanations, sounds as strange as to say that you are going to design a bedroom for a person and his/her iPhone. The new project is placed literally on top on the Packard Plant ruin, after removing the two upper stories of the old building. The strange preservation attitude is provided with the only explanation of give the old building a “haircut”. The absolute lack of dialogue between the old and the new looks like the height of absurdity. The new building is placed on top of the cut old one without interaction or connections between them and with the sole purpose of burying the industrial wreck with Lynn’s parametric ones.
The author claims to have used the Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt as a template, but I can’t imagine a strategy so extremely far removed from Price’s intentions. If the Potteries Thinkbelt was a conceptual plot that tried to rethink a proper reuse of an industrial infrastructure for cultural and educational purposes, Lynn´s one is about how to put things together basically dismissing each other. An easy test about the different conceptual value of these two projects is that from Price’s project we remember the ideas but not the shapes (that were accessory and because of that quite undefined), and from Lynn’s one, not only the conceptual strategy is extremely unclear (so directly neglected), but also we will forget the shapes in a few weeks amongst so many, and so similar, Grasshopper or Processing’s trash. Comparing both projects we could conclude that this last half century has been one of ideological emptying.
For completing the nonsense, we have to see Lynn in a video advertising the new Microsoft gimmick, the Hololens that looks very useful for comparing how many Tate Moderns are able to be fit in his project.
All this work that Cynthia Davidson resume as a set of proposals that offer “varying paths to catalyzing social, political and cultural change”, it looks to us quite embarrassing. Practically all the projects show disinterest for the social problems, lack of political statements or criticisms (in some moments even supporting segregation), and a poor ability to promote any kind of cultural or social change. This is especially concerning if we keep in mind that these people are the crème of the American Architectural scene, all of them recognized faculty members, and that the shown projects involved the most prestigious Architecture Schools all over the States.
One of the possible arguments for explaining this extreme disconnection between the architect’s work shown at the Biennale and the society’s concerns could be stemming from confusing the difference between imagination and fantasy. Both are tools of the architectural creative process with a difference between them which is very clear from Romanticism, illustrated by the fact that imagination guides us to a modification of the real while fantasy is able to add new things. Davidson focused this difference in the idea that fantasy is more private and that is right, because only privately can we think about something that doesn’t exist, and this difference is a key question for explaining the U.S. pavilion exhibition failure. The American architect’s visions for the Biennale are not at all imaginations as requested, but fantasies. The fantasy has an autonomy, a capacity for displacing the real facts with the conviction that “facts are not real, are not conclusions, not even premises, even though, by its nature, they look like it”.
It is very clear to us that most of the architects exhibited in the U.S. pavilion don’t believe at all that the harsh reality of Detroit’s city and people is real. If the curator’s intention was to engage peoples’ imagination with these works, this should have been evoked through the public quality of imagination as a way to set a common imaginary, a shared background between architects and society for referring to. From private fantasies, it is impossible to evoke public imagination. This strategy may have some sense in the art discipline (where the work is usually generated from an intimate world and there is no obligation to serve the community); but to promote this attitude in architecture is extremely irresponsible. This is a risk that the curators seem to have known when Davidson defended the idea of the speculative project and acknowledged the possibility that because of that, “the ideas and objects produced for display would fail to engage not only the viewer but also the urban subject”. Even though she said that it was “a risk worth taking, as the work (now) shows” . In our opinion dismissing the people and the city never should be deemed worthy for an architect, because this is an essential part of our professional responsibility.
If dismissing the social is something unacceptable in any architecture, this became worse when we are dealing with the city (as the social entity per excellence); and it converts into a dangerous provocation when the city where to work is involved in such a critical situation as Detroit. This is coming from an acute misunderstanding of cities as objects of art. As Christopher Alexander mentioned half an century earlier, the city is not a tree. Cities are sociopolitical complex adaptive systems that display a level two chaotic behavior. The architect’s attitude of extrapolating the lens of art from architecture on to the city is detrimental to the profession and unfair with people’s expectancies about our work. The first step in designing for social impact would be to understand things as they are, without vapid intellectualizations. Cities are assemblages in which architects play a significant role, yet, that role is not predictive in nature as complex systems contains within them uncertainty beyond computational reducibility or diagrammatic representation. For too long as architects, we have seen the city as a collection of architectural objects subject to our predilections and whims. They are bound to fail no matter how well intentioned they are as we have excelled at answering the wrong questions excessively well. In order for our design to have social impact, we must understand the role of the architects has setting up spatial framework for potential social interactions, but we are limited in our scope, and with a new sincerity, we must be humble enough to admit our limitations not as an intrinsic limitation of the architectural imagination but rather the intractable and computational unpredictability of any complex system. Only when we lose the burden of failing to predict the future, and work with transparent intentions involving academic and professional integrity and the community’s involvement forming a ‘wholeness’, can we see our designs having social impact.
We could set a socially embedded reading in all of this. This disparity between architect’s interests and people’s expectancies, is just a reflection of a disparate society split into two through a huge gap between the professional elite’s interests (elitism in part favored by the American University system), and the common Americans’ problems and concerns. Being part of some of these prestigious Universities and Colleges is clearly part of an economic and cultural lobby, that provides architects with a reinforcement of the well-known American self-confidence with the fatal consequence of annulling the necessary extra-disciplinary critical sense. The absurdity of some of the project’s narratives is a clear demonstration of this.
The social crack between American cultural elite and common people is getting much worse through deterioration of family finances in recent times, inasmuch as the University lobby is just one way in which American society dismisses peoples’ necessities. If we have a look to other public services we could also find a system extremely unfair to the unprivileged classes. Millions of family’s bankruptcies due to medical bills, and a huge wave baby-boomers fronting a financially unstable retire, are some of the other symptoms of the American society’s sickness based in a deep social unsupportiveness. As Parag Khanna said, the consequences of all these social segregation is that 60 percent of Americans believe that the American dream is out of reach for themselves and their children, and 40 percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four believe they will need to migrate abroad in search for work. In Khanna’s own words many American cities are “so deeply divided by wealth and race that they have become tinderboxes”.
Only by considering the intimate link between the social and the urban phenomenon, can we begin to understand the problems of the city as tough as Detroit’s. The city always makes an indissoluble body with the people who inhabit it. A social mass stressed by the system is extremely weak and it has no resiliency to difficulties, which is reflected by the inability for recovering from the urban crisis. Fighting for social justice is an essential first step for being able to save the city, and because of this, it is also the architect’s responsibility. Some of the architects, especially those ones linked strongly to the professional and University elite, are very clearly insensitive to the other side of the problem; and from their usually quite privileged financial positions, they do not feel any responsibility of improving the situation of the underprivileged class. This dismissive attitude fragilizes academia as a whole inculcating irrelevancy and they become prone to becoming what Nassim Taleb calls “Soviet-Harvard fragilista”; and it is very clear in the superficial manner the problem of Detroit is faced in the American pavilion in Venice.
The failure of the U.S. exhibition has been so noticeable that citizenship has started to react against the exhibited material. The online platform Detroit Resist, “a coalition of activists, artists, architects, and community members working on behalf of an inclusive, equitable, and democratic city”, has denounced the “architecture’s political indifference –the capacity of architecture to be of service to political regimes, no matter their ideological orientation”. They don’t believe in architects for fixing the city, and they have explained that the power of architecture is not based in the professionals anymore but in the resistance of the common people from Detroit. The statement of Detroit Resist finished asserting that the exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion is “structurally unable to engage this catastrophe and will thereby collaborate in the ongoing destruction of the city”. The wound between architects and society is widely open and bleeds profusely.
As a conclusion, this Biennale was a fantastic opportunity to show the capacity of architecture for improving people’s urban and domestic life conditions. Aravena’s statement was encouraging this social implication and the election of Detroit did look like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate all of this. Because all this it was a clear possibility to re-validate in our era of neo-liberal market-driven world the inherent socio-political condition of architecture (political comes from polis, city), reclaiming with this a lost social transcendence for architecture.
Milan Kundera contradicted the transcendence of the Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If Nietzsche argued that facts always recur ad infinitum, which give them a sense of heaviness; Kundera thought that things occur only once and never again and, because of this, life could be an experience with an extraordinary lightness. The modern architecture’s long history of social dismissiveness is a rare combination of both ideas: a tiring repetition of a banal lightness. The U.S. pavilion in the 15th Venice Biennale is a very clear example of this.
Can we, as architects, bear this lightness anymore?